Filtering Our Rights Along With Our Email?

I read recently the average office worker receives over 30 emails, 22 voice mails, 15 pieces of postal mail, 14 faxes, 12 post-it notes or interoffice memos, and 5 telemarketing calls per day. Worse, that same individual can expect to be greeted with a similar number of emails, snail mail, and telemarketing calls when she arrives home.

Whether the figures are accurate, the mere mention of them makes it easy to argue we’re drowning in information overload. Something must be done to filter information before paralysis sets in.

Unfortunately, email is in the cross hairs. The weapon of choice is filtering technology.

Email filtering technology is hardly new. Neither is the debate over its use. Once upon a time, that debate centered on where responsibility for eradicating junk email resided: with the consumer at the inbox level or with the provider at the ISP level. Not anymore. Good or bad, the decision’s been made. Now, the question is how far ISPs, software developers, and self-proclaimed spam censors will be allowed to go in their quest to rid our personal inboxes of any email they consider “bad.”

This is well beyond the issue of unsolicited commercial email. Messages people actually want are blocked by someone who cares only about stopping what they define as spam.

Concerning me greatly is the fact think-tank programmers are writing code and developing algorithms they claim can discriminate between an advertising solicitation and a personal email, with a success rate as high as 99 percent.

This latest advance in filtering technology takes a statistical approach, wherein software assigns a probability level to email, measuring a combination of features programmers consider to be common to spam, such as the HTML code for red and (much to my surprise as a resident of Florida) text such as “FL,” “opt-in,” “unsubscribe,” and “per,” against features they consider to be uncommon to spam: words such as “though,” “tonight,” and “apparently.” Hit a set probability score, the email is blocked.

Here’s how it would work. An HTML email goes out from a company and hits a mail server with this technology in place. The email is scanned. The software finds the words “click here,” along with other targeted words within that email’s content. It finds more characteristics deemed probable than improbable. Just like that, the email is blocked.

Direct response marketers who develop direct response advertising to include action words such as “click here,” “act now,” and “join” as a way to move the consumer to action will soon find this impossible in email.

What’s worse is this goes beyond our ability as marketers to send newsletters and ads. It prevents us, as individuals, from determining what kind of information we want to receive.

Will it block newsletters we subscribe to and, in some cases, pay for? What if we’ve granted a company permission to send information or signed up to receive promotions from a company we regularly do business with? Will we no longer be able to get coupons and sales alerts, even if we’ve requested them? What if we’re sent an email party invitation with a link to an RSVP site?

Companies underwriting the development of this software view any solicitation as spam, regardless of whether it was requested by the recipient. In essence, they are willing to prevent email from reaching individuals who want them under the guise of saving consumers from drowning in a sea of spam. As they see it, the rights of the few are sacrificed for the good of the many.

Is this fair? In my opinion as an email marketing professional and as a consumer, no. Stopping spam is an honorable goal, one every legitimate marketer should support. I know I do. But at what price?

I don’t want someone else determining what email I can receive any more than I want someone sorting through my snail mail or determining who can call my home. What about you?

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